The other day a friend claimed that Jamaican Patois (Jimiekn / Patwah), an English-based creole spoken in Jamaica, ‘has no grammar’.
I understand why they think this, but it’s not true. Every language has grammar, in the sense of a set of patterns and conventions for how sounds go together to form words (morphology), and how words go together to form sentences (syntax). There are also conventions for how the sounds are pronounced (phonology) how they’re represented in writing (orthography).
In some languages words may change to indicate their function in a sentence and their relationship to other words. Verbs may conjugate to show such things as person and tense. Nouns and other words may change to indicate things like gender (masculine, feminine, etc), number (singular, plural, etc), and case (nominative, accusative, dative, etc).
In other languages, such as Chinese, words do not change, but you use grammatical particles to indicate things like when something is happening, whether it is still happening, and so on. You just have to put the words in the right order and choose the right particles. You don’t have to worry about verb endings and other ways words can change.
If you think of grammar as things like verb endings, noun declensions and such like, then you could say that isolating languages like Chinese and Thai have less grammar than European languages.
In the same way, you could say that Jamaican has less grammar than English, or that Jamaican just works in a different way to English. It is not broken or poor English, and has its own structure and rules.
Here are some examples of how Jamaican and English differ:
One of the sentences that came up in my Dutch lessons today was “De jeugd van vandaag is onze toekomst”, which is translated as “The youth of today are our future” (emphasis added).
In Dutch de jeugd (the youth) is singular and is accompanied by a singular form of the verb, is, while in English the youth are seen as a collection of people, so are plural. You could argue that since the youth is singular in English, so you should say the youth is rather than the youth are, but that sounds strange to me.
Other examples of this phenomenon include:
Het personeel is laat = The staff are late
Het team is succesvol = The team are/is successful
De meerderheid is er tegen = The majority are/is against it
De raad is nutteloos = The council are/is useless
De familie is verenigd = The family are/is united
Amazon is een enorm bedrijf = Amazon are/is a huge company
Apparently in American English it is common to use the singular with collective nouns like team and family, while in British English plurals are more commonly used.
If you see a company or a group of people like a team as a single entity, then it makes sense to use the singular form of the verb, but if you see them as a group of people, then the plural form makes more sense.
Would you use the singular or plural in the above examples?
Are there differences in usage like this in other languages?
How about data? In scientific and financial papers it is often accompanied by a plural verb – the data are inconclusive, for example, but in everyday usage it is usually treated as singular – the data is out of date. Pedants might argue that data, like agenda, is plural, and their singular forms should be datum and agendum. While this is true in Latin, its not how these words are commonly used, at least since the 1940s. More discussion on this.
Data was borrowed from Latin data, the plural of datum (that is given), the past participle of dō (I give) [source].
Would you say a box of lego or a box of legos? How about a lego or a piece of lego? To my ears legos sounds strange, even though I know plenty of people use it.
When learning a new language, it helps if you learn how to use its grammar. There is much debate about how to do this.
Some people might advise you just to speak a language as soon as you know anything, and not to worry about making mistakes. In fact, they might encourage you to make mistakes. You will eventually pick up the grammar through extensive use of and exposure to the language, and maybe occasional glances at grammar books.
A ‘traditional’ approach to language learning involves concentrating more on learning the grammar before you try to use the language.
A combination of these approaches might be most effective. This is something I discussed on my latest podcast.
Last night one of the people at the French conversation group seems to have taken the first approach – he knows quite a bit of French vocabulary, but is not very good at putting words together into coherent sentences, or at using the grammar. As a result, it was rather difficult to work out what he was trying to say. I imagine native speakers of French might have less patience than us when trying to understand him.
So while it is possible to speak a language without knowing much of the grammar, you might find it difficult to make yourself understood.
Recently I have been learning some more Czech. I work through a few lessons on Duolingo and Mondly every day. Even though it’s many years since I last studied any Czech, I find I can understand quite a lot, and guess unknown words from context. One thing I struggle with though is all the noun declensions, and the many different forms of pronouns.
Czech has seven noun cases, so nouns and pronouns can come in up to fourteen different forms (6 or 7 in the singular and 6 or 7 in the plural), depending on the role they play in a sentence. In fact the plural forms are the same for some cases, but singular pronouns have long and short forms, and different forms after prepositions.
For example, I is já in the nominative, which is mainly used for emphasis and is generally dropped – (Já) vidím tě = I see you. The nominative singular of you is ty: tě is the accusative (and genitive) short form – the long form is tebe. Word order is flexible, so you could also say Tě vidím or Já tě vidím. Is there any difference in emphasis between the different word orders?
Some more examples:
Vidíš mě = You see me
Mluvíš se mnou = You are talking to me
Dáváš mi peníze = You are giving me money
Nemluv o mně = Don’t look at me
Vidíš můj dům = You see my house (dům [house] is masculine)
Vidíš moje domy = You see my houses
Vidíš mou kočku = You see my cat (kočka [cat] is feminine)
Vidíš moje kočky = You see my cats
Vidíš moje auto = You see my car (auto [car] is neuter)
Vidíš moje auta = You see my cars
k mému překvapení = to my surprise
Odpovězte, prosím, na mou otázku = Please answer my question
Váš dům je blízko mého = Your house is near mine
This are some forms of the first person singular pronoun (I, me, my, mine). There are as many, it not more, for other pronouns. Maybe one day I’ll be able to recognize and use them all.
While learning a foreign language, the teachers sometimes remark that “even native speakers get this wrong. Don’t imitate them”.
How could native speakers possibly be wrong?? If they’re not the standard, then what is?? An artificial one from the textbook?? We learn a language to communicate with the natives, not with the textbook, right??
The debate looks at these questions from different perspectives. Many commenters agree that native speakers do make mistakes in their own languages, and give examples from a variety of languages. Others argue that native speakers of a language don’t all speak the same version of their language. There are also comments about native speakers not knowing the grammar of their own language, or at least not being able to explain why words are used in particular ways.
When field linguists document previously undocumented languages, they work out how the language is used by the people who speak it. They don’t learn the language, then start telling native speakers that they are making mistakes. However, with languages that have standardised versions, especially written versions, people come to believe that the standard version is the ‘right’ version, and any deviation from it is a ‘mistake’. Thus non-standard varieties may be looked down on, ridiculed, and even erradicated by teachers in schools.
Can a native speaker make mistakes in their own language?
Yes. There are various kinds of mistakes a native speaker might make. Such as disfluencies, when you mispronounce words, or get your syllables or words jumbled up. Or you may spoonerise, as in par cark, rather than car park.
You may confuse words with similar sounds or meanings, such as effect and affect. You may miss out words – I certainly do when writing sometimes, and don’t always realise, as I know what I intended to write, so when I read the text again, I mentally fill in any missing words.
Spelling errors are also common, especially in English, as are orthographic errors, such as adding apostrophe’s when they’re not necessary, or forgetting to add them. Or, using too many, or too few commas.
Here are some examples of ‘mistakes’ native speakers make in English:
Many native speakers don’t know the grammar of their own language
This is a common misconception that often appears in discussions about language, especially when talking about how words or particular grammatical features ‘should’ be used. For example, the use of less and fewer in English. You may not know all the grammatical terms, such as noun, adjective, gender, case, etc, and the conventions like use to apostrophes, but you can use the language effectively. Native speakers of English are unlikely to say something like “To the shop went I morning this” or “Grammar very important is”, unless you’re imitating Yoda.
John McWhorter often talks about things like this on his podcast, Lexicon Valley. On a recent show he mentioned that the less / fewer distinction is an arbitary rule made up by someone in the 19th century. People have been using these words interchangeably for a long time without any confusion. So if someone tells you that the the signs in supermarkets shouldn’t say “five items or less” but “five items or fewer”, you could refer them to his podcast.
In Welsh textbooks and grammar books you are taught how to use mutations – that is the way initial consonants change in various circumstances. For example, Dw i’n byw ym Mangor = I live in Bangor, Dw i’n mynd i Fangor = I’m going to Bangor. Native speakers of Welsh don’t always use these as described in the books – sometimes they mutate, sometimes they don’t. So who is right? The native speakers, or the writers of textbooks and grammars? Or both?
Languages change all the time. New words and grammatical constructions emerge. The meanings of words can expand, or contract, and the ways they’re used changes. Such changes often happen in informal language first. Some of them at least will eventually become part of the standard language.
If your utterances and scribblings are understood by others, then you have managed to communicate effectively, even if you deviate from the perceived standard version of the language.
But we have to have standard’s, don’t we? And there are some things that you just shoudn’t do, like starting a sentence with a conjunction, splitting an infinitve – to happily do so is just wrong. And to finish a sentence with a preposition is something I can’t be having with! 😉
I got thinking standard languages and grammars today after reading an old post on Michal Boleslav Měchura’s blog Young, Single, Multilingual in which differences between standard and non-standard Irish language and grammar are discussed.
One example is the use of the tag question ní tá instead of the standard nach bhfuil – the equivalent of isn’t it?, aren’t you?, etc. This is used mainly in and around Cloch Chionnaola in the north west of Ireland. According to Michal, “from the Standard-Irish point of view, it breaks all the rules, combining the wrong words in ungrammatical ways. But it is reportedly very common among native speakers in the area …”
A standard language is one particular form of a language that is chosen, from among many, for linguistic, political and social reasons, to be the main language used in education, media and in formal contexts. When this happens other forms of that language may start to be viewed as non-standard, substandard, or plain wrong, and such judgements are often applied to speakers of those forms as well, though that’s a separate issue. Standards are maintained by official bodies, schools, publishers and so on, or at least they try to do so.
A grammar can be a description of the standard form of a language which is seen as the model speakers and writers should adhere to, or aim for. Alternatively a grammar might try to describe how people actually use a language and may include non-standard and informal usage, which would be judged wrong by a prescriptive grammar.
In the real world of everyday language few people speak exactly like the standard form of the language. We stumble over words, get words mixed up, make grammatical ‘mistakes’ and so on. At least this is the case for English and Irish. What about for other languages? How big is the difference between the standard language, if one exists, and colloquial language(s)? Do people complain about grammatical ‘mistakes’ made by others?
Recently I’ve been learning Serbian, Russian and Czech with free apps produced by Hallberg Ryman, who make them for quite a variety of languages for Andriod and iPhone/iPad. They are working well for me and I would definitely recommend them.
They use a flashcard/SRS-based system to teach you vocabulary arranged into categories such as numbers, colours, clothing, food, etc. Within each category you learn individual words, and then see them in various sentences, which you’re tested on by filling in blanks, or by assembling sentences from a bunch of random words.
One blank filling exercise involves typing the missing words – in the other you just select the words – and I find this the most difficult, especially for Russian. It is also the most useful because I have to think about spelling and the grammar.
The other day I was doing a lesson on colours in Czech and in the typing exercise was having trouble remembering the endings for each word. I tried to memorise them for each sentence, but found this tricky, then I thought that there must be a pattern to them. I soon realised that they were agreeing with the gender of the nouns they accompanied. Once I spotted the pattern, it was easy to remember and apply it. I’m sure this aspect of Czech grammar has come up before in my Czech studies, but I hadn’t internalised it. Now that I’ve worked it out for myself through observation and experiment, I won’t forget it.
When learning grammar, are you able to take it in and remember it just from grammatical descriptions, or do you need to see lots of examples?
Tag questions or question tags are interrogative fragments (tags) added to statements making them into sort of questions. They tend to be used more in colloquial speech and informal writing than in formal writing, and can indicate politeness, emphasis, irony, confidence or lack of it, and uncertainty. Some are rhetorical and an answer is not expected, others invite a response.
In English they come in various forms, for example:
– I like coconut, don’t I?
– You’re tall, aren’t you?
– He’s handsome, isn’t he?
– She said she’d be here, didn’t she?
– It’ll rain tomorrow, won’t it?
– We were away, weren’t we?
– You’d gone, hadn’t you?
– They’ll be there, won’t they?
A simpler tag question used is some varieties of English in innit, a contraction of isn’t it, which could be used for all the examples above. Other English tags include right? and eh? – do you use any others?
Tag questions in Celtic languages can also have quite complex forms which depend on the verb and the subject in the main clause, particularly in Welsh.
– T’eh braew jiu, nagh vel? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
– Hie ad dys y thie oast riyr, nagh jagh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
– Bee oo goll magh mairagh, nagh bee? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)
– Tá sé go breá inniu, nach bhfuil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
– Chuaigh siad go dtí an teach tábhairne aréir, nagh ndeachaigh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
– Beidh tú ag dul amach amárach, nach bheidh? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)
– Tha i brèagha an diugh, nach eil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
– Chaidh iad dhan taigh-òsta an-raoir, nagh deach? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
– Bidh thu a’ dol a-mach a-màireach, nach bi? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)
– Mae’n braf heddiw, on’d ydy? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
– Mi aethon nhw nhw’n mynd i’r dafarn neithiwr, on’d wnaethon? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
– Fyddet ti’n mynd allan yfory, on’ fyddet? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)
I’m not sure about how tag questions work in Breton and Cornish.
Last week a friend suggested that it is grammatically correct to say “I go to the bar now”, even if it’s more usual to say “I’m going to the bar now”. We suggested that in English as spoken in the UK the first would be considered wrong, even though it’s understandable. My friend insisted that this is down to usage rather than grammar; that the first version is grammatically correct, and that in varieties of English spoken in Uganda and other parts of East Africa, the first version is more common. We then had quite a discussion about the differences between grammar and usage.
For me grammar is a description of how a language is used, rather than a set of rules on how a language should be used. Rules in a descriptive grammar arise from usage and can change as usage changes, whereas in prescriptive grammar the rules are seen as absolute and unchanging and are based on a theoretical ideal of the language that few people actually use. What is your view on this?
The simple present tense in standard English is often used to indicate a habitual action, e.g. “I go to the pub every Thursday night”, while the continuous present tense is used for current action, e.g. “I’m going to the pub on Thursday night” (a specific instance). I hadn’t thought much about this distinction until I learnt Irish and found that there are different tense for habitual and non-habitual action: “Tá sé ag dul go dtí an teach tábhairne ar oíche Déardaoin” (He’s going to the pub on Thursday night); “Bíonn sé ag dul go dtí an teach tábhairne ar oíche Déardaoin” (He goes to the pub on Thursday night). The second version might be rendered as “He does be going to the pub on Thursday night” in Hiberno-English.
If you have learnt English as a second/foreign language, do you find the differences between the simple and continuous tenses difficult to grasp? This is likely to depend on whether there is such a distinction on your native language.